Music is the background to most of our life. It is an art that gives pleasure, stimulates memories and makes us share emotions. But what appears to be the simplest and most common thing in the world is actually the result of complex and surprising mechanisms. Scientists have long wondered: what is the effect of music on our brains?
The history of the “art of the Muses” begins thousands of years ago, perhaps even before the birth of homo sapiens. Or at least so many archaeological finds suggest. Music has accompanied the human being in the history of his evolution and there are many theories that have been hypothesized about this link.
Some, noting that movement areas were activated in the brain’s response to melodies, have speculated that music arose to help us move together, which leads to being more altruistic and supportive. According to others, however, the influence of art on human beings would have arisen by chance, due to its ability to hijack brain systems created for other purposes, such as language, emotions and movement.
We listen to music from an early age, even when we are just babies. It is a fact that infants respond better to melodies rather than verbal language and that they relax by listening to sweet sounds. In particular, premature babies who suffer from insomnia benefit from the sound of the mother’s heartbeat or from the sounds that mimic it.
As we said, music is able to give us pleasure. Like food, sex and drugs, it releases dopamine in the brain. The stimuli due to these four elements depend on a sub cortical brain circuit in the limbic system, formed by brain structures that manage physiological responses to emotional stimuli. The curious aspect is that from scientific studies it seems that the emotional stimuli linked to music, food, sex and drugs all activate a common system.
Robert , one of the founders of the Canadian research laboratory Brain, Music and Sound, studied the neuronal mechanisms of music perception. From the moment of their perception by the hearing, the sounds are transmitted first to the brain stem and then to the primary auditory cortex; the impulses then travel in brain networks important for perceiving music and for storing that already heard. The brain’s response to sounds is in fact conditioned by its hearing in the past, as the brain contains data relating to all melodies.
Lucía Strauss, of the Institute Neurosciences Cognitive, also referred to this sort of database to investigate those brain mechanisms that allow us to anticipate actions. The researchers showed tango dancers videos in which other dancers made mistakes and found (via electroencephalograms) that only experienced dancers were able to anticipate mistakes. In fact, there are circuits in the cerebral cortex that perceive, encode, store and construct abstract patterns that represent the regularities extracted from our previous musical experiences. The building of expectations and its possible violation is the key to an emotional response. Musical Instrument help to maintain the good health.
Another aspect being studied is the relationship between music and language, which are both processed by both hemispheres of the brain. It also seems that music and language share some aspects regarding their elaboration on a conceptual level. The first, however, seems to offer a new method of communication rooted in emotions: for example, it is able to influence our mood and our physiology, more effectively than words. The simultaneous activation of several brain circuits produced by sounds can mediate an emotional dialogue.
A last field of particular interest is that of health, where music is used to improve, maintain or recover cognitive, emotional and social functions and to slow down the progression of certain diseases. Music therapy is particularly useful in the case of patients suffering from motor disorders or dementia and children with special abilities: since it activates almost all brain regions, music is mainly used to recover linguistic and motor activities. When making or listening to music, brain regions involved in emotions, knowledge and movement are brought into action. Music therapy promotes neuro-plasticity, thus compensating for the deficits of damaged brain regions. In general, the so-called art of the Muses encourages people to move, induces positive moods and increases arousal, all of which can lead the patient to rehabilitation.